The celebrated Spanish conductor, pianist, and harpsichordist, José Iturbi, was born in of Basque descent. His father built and tuned pianos as a hobby so the young José had access to an instrument from a very early age. He was one of four children and his sister Amparo also had a career as a pianist. José began playing the piano at the incredible age of 3, and by the time he was 7 he was earning a living by appearing in street cafes. At the age of 11 he was studying piano at the Valencia Conservatory (1st prize, 1908) with Joaquín Malats, a friend of Albéniz. The Spanish composer heard Iturbi and gave him part of his new work Iberia to play. When Iturbi was 15, the people of his home-town collected money to send him to study at the Paris Conservatoire with Victor Staub. He obtained a premier prix in 1912 and after World War I received a professorship at the Geneva Conservatory (1919-1923). At at this time, he also undertook extensive private studies in keyboard technique and interpretation with the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska.
Beginning around 1912 and during the 1920’s José Iturbi led the life of a touring virtuoso, travelling across Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Far East, Russia and South America. In 1923 he made a highly successful London debut, and then toured Europe and South America. His worldwide concert tours were brilliantly successful. He excelled as an interpreter of French as well as Spanish music. On October 10, 1929, he made his USA. debut in Philadelphia with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski playing L.v. Beethoven’s G major Piano Concerto Op. 58. However, Iturbi was as interested in conducting as in being a pianist. He made his first appearance as a conductor in Mexico City in 1933 when presented by donon Ernesto de Quesada from Conciertos Daniel. Thereafter he pursued a dual career as a pianist and conductor, sometimes conducting from the keyboard. He conducted many of the world’s greatest orchestras including the Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra Filarmonica della Scala and Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam. From 1936 to 1944 Iturbi was conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in upstate New York. He also led the Valencia Symphony Orchestra for many years.
While José Iturbi the pianist had his detractors as an interpreter of the classics, there was no denying his idiomatic mastery of Spanish music. He also composed a number of piano pieces in the Spanish vein. He was a noted harpsichordist, and made several short length instructional films utilizing the re-emergent early 20th Century French Pleyel et Cie pedal, metal-framed harpsichord made famous by Wanda Landowska. His sister, Amparo Iturbi (b Valencia, March 12, 1898; d Beverly Hills, April 21, 1969), was also a talented pianist. She frequently appeared in duo concerts with her brother in the USA and Europe.
José Iturbi was one of the most popular classical artists of his day, a popularity enhanced by his film appearances and recordings. He appeared as an actor-performer in several filmed musicals of the 1940’s, beginning with 1943's Thousands Cheer for MGM. He usually appeared as himself in these films. In 1945 he was featured in MGM's Anchors Aweigh, which starred Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, as well as several other MGM movies. In the biopic about Frédéric Chopin, A Song to Remember, Iturbi's playing was used in the soundtrack in scenes where Cornel Wilde, as Chopin, was playing the piano.
There is no doubt that the height of José Iturbi’s career was the 1930’s and that his future relationship with Hollywood, although providing vast exposure and publicity, was in the end deleterious to his pianism. From the mid 1940’s onward much of his playing became earthbound and less inspired. Iturbi courted controversy throughout his career and acquired a reputation for publicly making provocative remarks, whilst his volatile temper caused problems with collaborators and promoters. He could refuse to perform in a concert that contained both popular and classical repertoire on the grounds that though both were acceptable, they should not be on the same programme. The public he attracted after working in Hollywood did not want to hear Schumann’s Études Symphoniques Op. 13 or Johannes Brahms’s Variations on a theme by Paganini Op. 35, but expected Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Clair de lune, Für Elise or Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 Op. 23. Oscar Levant, another pianist who flirted with Hollywood, had the same problem.
José Iturbi recorded for many labels during his career. For RCA he recorded encore pieces such as Scarlatti sonatas and a poetic Andante favori of L.v. Beethoven in the early 1930’s; these reveal both sensitivity and a scintillating technique, but it is in the Spanish repertoire that Iturbi excels. His pre-war Granados and Albéniz recordings have an authority and understanding that he retained in this repertoire throughout his career. His recordings of Mozart include the Concerto for Two Pianos in E flat made with his sister Amparo in 1940. The LP era saw many issues of ‘recitals’ consisting of popular classics and encore pieces by L.v. Beethoven, Debussy and Franz Liszt made for RCA, but during the 1950’s Iturbi made a number of LP’s for Columbia of varied repertoire. One disc couples two Mozart sonatas with L.v. Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, whilst another is a combination of Debussy and Ravel. There is an exciting L’Isle joyeuse, Feux d’artifice and a well-defined and humorous Children’s Corner Suite. Iturbi also has the delicacy if not the subtlety for Ravel’s Sonatine and Jeux d’eau although occasionally he could play with a disturbing violence. Perhaps Iturbi’s best LP disc is another he made for Columbia entitled “Spanish Piano Music” published in 1960. An excellent Allegro di concierto in C sharp major by Granados and three of his Danzas españolas are an absolute delight as are the Albéniz works. These recordings were recently issued on compact disc by French EMI in their Les Rarissimes Series. At the end of his career Iturbi made an LP for a company named Turia which, although it has old favourites like Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat Op. 53 and Albéniz’s Malagueña, also includes a performance of Mozart’s Sonata in D major K. 311. Iturbi as composer can be heard on an RCA disc from 1955 in which he conducts the Valencia Symphony Orchestra in his Seguidillas for orchestra, an effective piece, excellently orchestrated.
Iturbi’s concerto recordings were generally made with him as both soloist and conductor. While this is practicable in Mozart concertos it can certainly cause problems in works such as Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 Op. 23, which he recorded for Columbia with the Orchestre de l’Association des Concerts Colonne. This performance, of a work Iturbi no doubt was asked to play frequently, sounds superficial and rhythmically four-square.
The problem with José Iturbi is that he is not taken seriously as a pianist because he appeared in Hollywood films. Other great pianists have done the same, Arthur Rubinstein, even Paderewski; but the difference is that Iturbi played jazz and boogie-woogie, albeit in an urbane and dapper fashion. It is unfair to dismiss Iturbi for this reason, as he was a gifted pianist and musician who evidently had a successful career both as conductor and pianist. He also gave first performances of a number of pieces, including Igor Stravinsky’s Piano Rag Music.
José Iturbi also suffered much tragedy in his personal life. He married María Giner de los Santos in 1916. She died in 1928 after apparently mistakenly taking poison for cough medicine. They had one child, María. Iturbi was at odds with his daughter, against whom he brought a lawsuit in the California courts, claiming that she was an unfit mother to his grandchildren. Although not long after this he bought a house for her and the children in Beverly Hills, his daughter subsequently committed suicide. José Iturbi continued his public performances into his eighties. Finally he was ordered by his doctors to take a sabbatical in March 1980. He died on June 28, 1980, five days after being admitted to Cedars-Sinai Hospital for heart problems. His companion for many years was Marion Seabury, his secretary, who survived him and founded the José Iturbi Foundation after his death.